Out of Amsterdam: Tourism with a Twist

It always strikes me how foreign tourists stick to the same handful of places. In The Netherlands, where I’m from, everyone flocks to the Red Light District or Anne Frank House, depending on their preferences. I can’t vouch for the Red Light District, but the Anne Frank House is certainly worth your time, albeit rather crowded with masses of ice cream-scoffing travellers who can’t think of anything else to do.

Not having lived in The Netherlands for a while now, I rather feel like a tourist myself whenever I go back. But rather than booking a hotel or an AirBnB, I drop my suitcase at my parents’ house and settle down for a week of homemade food and bad TV. And of course my holiday would not be complete without a few daytrips.

Rather than veering into an increasingly overcrowded Amsterdam, I elected to travel to Den Haag (known to international travellers as The Hague, which to me sounds like the name of a restaurant trying to be too fancy for its own good). With my mum for company, I conquered the city’s notoriously complicated public transport network and visited two of the country’s most underrated museums.

Den Haag, incidentally, is a nice ple. Less crowded than Amsterdam, it’s home to all kinds of interesting things, such as the royal palace and the Dutch parliament. It also offers lovely quaint architecture and great opportunities for culture lovers. The Mauritshuis museum is worth a visit if you like pre-1900 paintings, and even if you don’t, it owns both The Goldfinch and Girl With a Pearl Earring, giving it some intriguing literary kudos.

But we skipped the Mauritshuis for what has recently been rebranded as the Kunstmuseum, or Art Museum (which to me sounds like stating the obvious, but never mind). I’ve visited the place numerous times and still find it frustrating to navigate – I see a pattern here, and it’s not my limited sense of direction. But apart from its permanent collection – it owns loads of Mondriaan paintings, including Victory Boogie Woogie – it always stages interesting temporary exhibitions.

We saw one focusing on Monet’s later work, packed with gargantuan paintings of water lilies and overgrown ponds. It was intriguing to see how even a wealthy and respected painter like Monet could fall out of favour towards the end of his life. Rehabilitation happened thanks to some unlikely allies: American painters like Barnett Newman and Elsworth Kelly campaigned for American museums to buy and display Monet’s work, claiming that it deserved more recognition than it was getting. It goes to show that times and tastes constantly change. Today Monet’s works are worth millions and few will dare to call them outdated or boring.

A second exhibition featured a combination of dance costumes and fashion inspired by dance. The two are connected but not the same – dance costumes, after all, are used by people who move and sweat in them day after day, and need to be sturdy as well as beautiful. I particularly liked the variety on display: from the hilariously impractical cardboard costumes designed by Picasso for Ballets Russes to the more contemporary outfits worn by 1990s ravers. The presence of both a dance floor and loud music encouraged a group of Belgian school girls to test the dance-ability of their own outfits, their stern teacher looking on with a barely detectable spark in her eyes.

Onwards to Beelden aan Zee, or Sculptures by the Sea, another obvious name for a nice place. This museum based in the neighbouring town slash suburb of Scheveningen, which offers all the pleasures one might expect from a fading seaside resort. The sea itself is beautiful, as are the wide sandy beaches, but the crumbling Kurhaus Hotel and pier are a sorry sight. In an effort to give the place some of its former pizzazz back, Lego is building an indoor experience here, but the opening date has been postponed several times and remains unconfirmed.

Don’t let this put you off, though, as there are still excellent fish and chips to be had, and Beelden aan Zee singlehandedly undoes any reservations one might have about the town. The museum, a small pavilion partially hidden by grassy dunes, is home to an ever-changing sculpture collection. I’d seen an excellent Picasso exhibition here a few years ago and was looking forward to the Niki de Saint Phalle works currently on display.

Niki de Saint Phalle never disappoints. Her enormous Nana sculptures, made from plastic and brightly-coloured paint, even cause the most serious art lover to smile, however briefly. I particularly loved the works she created with on and off lover Jean Tinguely, which pair her erotic shapes with his mechanic rust heaps. A great metaphor for their relationship, I suppose, which wasn’t always a happy one. The exhibition only featured photos of de Saint Phalle as a young – and very beautiful – woman, neglecting to explain that she suffered severe respiratory problems as she got older, caused by her tendency to work with polyester without protecting herself properly. Dying for your art is often framed as cheesy romanticism, but the reality of it made me faintly sad: to see work so colourful and so full of life, knowing that it secretly sucked the life out of its creator.

There’s nothing wrong with visiting the usual places when visiting a new town or country. After all, they are probably famous for a reason. But they also offer a limited picture, eager to please visitors, and offering up their secrets all too easily. I always try to go off the beaten track at least a little bit, as the best experiences often hide in unexpected little corners. Sitting in Beelden aan Zee’s lovely café, a hot chocolate in front of me and in good company, I finished the day with a view on De Saint Phalle’s dancing women. Outside the seagulls fought over the remains of a fish and chips dinner. And the waves never stopped.

Image my own – View of Scheveningen beach

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